A Brief Introduction to Fair Information Practices

As every man goes through life he fills in a number of forms for the record, each containing a number of questions . .. There are thus hundreds of little threads radiating from every man, millions of threads in all. If these threads were suddenly to become visible, the whole sky would look like a spider’s web, and if they materialized as rubber bands, buses; trams and even people would all lose the ability to move, and the wind would be unable to carry torn-up newspapers or autumn leaves along the streets of the city. They are not visible, they are not material, but every man is constantly aware of their existence… Each man, permanently aware of his own invisible threads, naturally develops a respect for the people who manipulate the threads.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward.


Pam Dixon


Fair Information Practices are a set of principles and practices that describe how an information-based society may approach information handling, storage, management, and flows with a view toward maintaining fairness, privacy, and security in a rapidly evolving global technology environment.

The first steps toward formally codifying Fair Information Practices began in July 1973, when an advisory committee of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare proposed a set of information practices to address a lack of protection under the law at that time. The resulting HEW report, Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens: report of the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems, set forward key foundational ideas for safeguarding privacy. The report stated that “Safeguards for personal privacy based on our concept of mutuality in record-keeping would require adherence by record-keeping organizations to certain fundamental principles of fair information practice” [n 1].

The fundamental principles the HEW authors articulated are as follows:

  • “There must be no personal-data record-keeping systems whose very existence is secret.
  • There must be a way for an individual, to find out what information about him is in a record and how it is used.
  • There must be a way for an individual to prevent information about him obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other purposes without his consent.
  • There must be a way for an individual to correct or amend a record of identifiable information about him.
  • Any organization creating, maintaining, using, or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take reasonable precautions to prevent misuse of the data.

These principles should govern the conduct of all personal-data record-keeping systems. Deviations from them should be permitted only if it is clear that some significant interest of the individual data subject, will be served or if some paramount societal interest can be clearly demonstrated; no deviation should be permitted except as specifically provided by law” [n 2].

In 1980, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) used these core HEW fair information principles and built upon them to create a set of eight Fair Information Practices codified in the OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data [n 3]. The OECD has historically created internationally-agreed upon codes, practices, decisions, recommendations, and policy instruments. The eight principles OECD published in 1980 were agreed upon by member countries, including the United States, through a consensus and formal ratification process. These OECD guidelines form the basis of many modern international privacy agreements and national laws, and these eight principles from 1980 are referred to by the U.S. Government Accountability Office as key principles for privacy protection [n 4].

The principles of Fair Information Practices are as follows:


The Eight Fair Information Practices (From the OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy)

1. Collection Limitation Principle. There should be limits to the collection of personal data and any such data should be obtained by lawful and fair means and, where appropriate, with the knowledge or consent of the data subject.

2. Data Quality Principle. Personal data should be relevant to the purposes for which they are to be used, and, to the extent necessary for those purposes, should be accurate, complete and kept up-to-date.

3. Purpose Specification Principle. The purposes for which personal data are collected should be specified not later than at the time of data collection and the subsequent use limited to the fulfillment of those purposes or such others as are not incompatible with those purposes and as are specified on each occasion of change of purpose.

4. Use Limitation Principle. Personal data should not be disclosed, made available or otherwise used for purposes other than those specified in accordance with Paragraph 9

except: a) with the consent of the data subject;

or b) by the authority of law.

5. Security Safeguards Principle. Personal data should be protected by reasonable security safeguards against such risks as loss or unauthorized access, destruction, use, modification or disclosure of data.

6. Openness Principle. There should be a general policy of openness about developments, practices and policies with respect to personal data. Means should be readily available of establishing the existence and nature of personal data, and the main purposes of their use, as well as the identity and usual residence of the data controller.

7. Individual Participation Principle. An individual should have the right:

a) to obtain from a data controller, or otherwise, confirmation of whether or not the data controller has data relating to him;

b) to have communicated to him, data relating to him within a reasonable time; at a charge, if any, that is not excessive; in a reasonable manner; and in a form that is readily intelligible to him;

c) to be given reasons if a request made under subparagraphs(a) and (b) is denied, and to be able to challenge such denial; and

d) to challenge data relating to him and, if the challenge is successful to have the data erased, rectified, completed or amended.

8. Accountability Principle. A data controller should be accountable for complying with measures which give effect to the principles stated above.


To read the entire document in which these principles are contained, see the “OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data” <http://www.oecd.org/document/18/0,2340,en_2649_34255_1815186_1_1_1_1,00.html>.


Why Fair Information Practices are Important Today

In the decades since the HEW report and the OECD guidelines were published, what has become most clear is that the individuals and organizations who were apprehensive about the loss of fundamental privacies due to lack of protections concomitant with large technological shifts were correct in their concerns. The viewpoint available today affords one with few illusions about the impact of digitization on data flows. This is not just the post-9/11 world, it is also the post- NSA-spying, post-Choicepoint and Veterans Administration data breaches world, and it is a world that needs unambiguous, even-handed application of Fair Information Practices.

The eight principles of Fair Information Practices, if applied consistently today, would go far in making a remarkable difference in quality of life for individuals in many countries, including the United States. If Solzhenitsyn’s ideas about personal information he expressed in Cancer Ward were correct, and the data people leave behind about themselves through their lives becomes like invisible strings and spider webs pulling at their lives, then individuals living today have more than a few cobwebs to clear. In an era of increased digitization of individuals’ information, having fundamental fairnesses of information practices firmly in place is indispensable to a well-balanced, equitable society.


For more information, also see:

  • The European Union Directive on the Protection of Personal Data (1995)
  • The Canadian Standards Association, Model Code for the Protection of Personal Information: A National Standard of Canada (1996).




[n 1]See Records, Computers and the Rights of Citizens Report of the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Automated Personal Data Systems, “III. Safeguards for Privacy,” subheading “A Redefinition of the Concept of Personal Privacy” <http://aspe.hhs.gov/datacncl/1973privacy/c3.htm>. [Editor’s note: The Solzhenitsyn quote seen on this page in the left column is quoted above heading III of the HEW report.] Another key resource regarding the history of Fair Information Practices is found in Robert Gellman’s analysis and history of FIPS, Fair Information Practices: A Basic History, December 2007. Available at <http://bobgellman.com/rg-docs/rg-FIPshistory.pdf>.

[n 2] Ibid.

[n 3] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data. September 23, 1980. <http://www.oecd.org/document/18/0,2340,en_2649_34255_1815186_1_1_1_1,00.html>. Available in French. Overviews available in Czech, German, Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish.

[n 4] Koontz, Linda D. Personal Information: Agencies and Resellers Vary in Providing Privacy Protections. GAO-06609T at 9 and 10. April 4, 2006. See also


Originally posted June 5, 2006. Updated December 19, 2007.